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COVID-19 Is Changing Work. This Automation Expert Is Ready to Help

By Reuben Gregg Brewer – Apr 18, 2020 at 3:02PM

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The current crisis could lead to a faster shift in the way we work, which would be good news for this company.

If you are looking at stocks today with an eye to the post-COVID-19 world, Rockwell Automation (ROK -2.33%) is one company that should be on your short list.

The world is always shifting and changing, but there are times when a one-time event leads to swift advances and adjustments. The COVID-19 pandemic is one such event. In the retail space -- where consumers were already slowly doing more buying online -- there are obvious changes. With social distancing -- including the closure of non-essential businesses the world over -- being used to combat the novel coronavirus, consumers are being forced to do more shopping online. When physical stores open up again, it is likely that the retail landscape will be different. In effect, the shift toward online shopping will likely have been forced into a higher gear. 

In the work world, the headlines today are focused on employees working remotely. That may or may not last on a grand scale, but there's another trend that's been taking shape in the work world for an even longer time -- industrial automation -- that could be accelerated by current circumstances. If, for example, companies are forced to shut down because they must send home workers who can't do their jobs from home, bringing in more machines looks like a very good idea. And that's just one part of the automation trend from which pure play Rockwell Automation is poised to benefit.

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Image source: Getty Images.

Highly focused 

Rockwell Automation stock, while never cheap, is off of its recent highs by around 20%. The 2.4% dividend yield that comes with today's price, meanwhile, is near the high end of its yield range over the past decade, suggesting that it may be a good time for income-focused investors to take a look. Rockwell works in cyclical industries, so the stock's decline isn't unfounded. An economic downturn is likely to crimp its top and bottom lines. But the market's knee-jerk reaction to indiscriminately sell just about everything is overlooking the long-term opportunity here. 

ROK Chart

ROK data by YCharts

This isn't just about factories making things like cars. Rockwell's business spans cars, logistics (warehouses), food, healthcare, energy, and mining, among other areas. It involves both physical equipment and the software that connects entire business systems together. Automation is much more than just replacing a factory worker with a robot, though that is a part of the story.

Today, automation can help a company monitor wear and tear on its machines so it knows when to schedule maintenance or track inventory levels in a warehouse to ensure that the proper stock is available at all times. The pandemic is making clear that the bigger picture is reducing reliance on human beings to do even mundane -- though important -- jobs, while still being able to see everything that's going on in a business at a high level. Rockwell's products and services can make that happen. 

Rockwell has been growing via internal capital investments and acquisitions. Over the past eight years, it has added 14 companies that either expanded its geographic reach or augmented its product and service capabilities. It has also been working to increase the recurring revenue it generates from things like software subscriptions. This is notable, since installing a robot (in a factory or warehouse, for example) is a one-time event, but the software used to operate that robot could generate revenue for years. The company's architecture and software operations account for around 45% of revenue. 

Although Rockwell has been expanding , increasing revenue from $4.9 billion to $6.7 billion over the past decade, it has not overextended itself financially. The financial debt-to-equity ratio was roughly 0.10 at the end of 2019. That's a very low number for any company, and speaks to a very strong balance sheet. In addition, Rockwell covered its trailing interest expenses a solid 13 times at the end of last year. These numbers will ebb and flow, but this automation expert has the financial strength today to manage through a recession (which looks like an increasingly likely result of the fight against COVID-19) while continuing to invest in its business. And as countries around the globe emerge from the COVID-19 hit, Rockwell will be able to help companies more fully automate their operations. 

A bet on the future of work

No company is perfect, and that applies just as much to Rockwell Automation. It is an industrial stock serving cyclical businesses. The coronavirus is terrible and highly likely to change the way we live and work, with an economic downturn likely to crimp Rockwell's top and bottom lines before things start to get better again.

That said, Rockwell is financially strong enough to handle the hit, and appears well positioned to take advantage of an accelerated shift toward automation that could come from COVID-19. With the stock down materially from recent highs, now is a good time to take a look.

Reuben Gregg Brewer has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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